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Guest column| Paul Baker

Guest column: An English visitor says 'Good show, America'

Too soon we left Tampa, hurtling through the night across the "pond" back to London and our home in England. Our holiday in Safety Harbor had been too short, but with us went many happy memories and a resolve to return next year, only next time for a month.

The pictures on my computer are visible evidence of our time in Florida, but the really abiding memories are in our minds, mostly of an easy and warm "Hi, neighbor" friendliness that is the true America — the real America, not the picture painted only too readily by the media and politicians who interpret the world as they would have us see it.

I first met America as a schoolboy in a small cathedral city outside London in 1942 when a U.S. military convoy swept down in the early evening, GIs in the backs of lorries, grinning broadly as they threw gum and coins in our direction. Later we repaired to the barracks at the back of Woolworth, where our new friends dispensed K-rations, more gum, and even cigarettes, which we swore were for our fathers, but which we took to the woods to smoke and became violently ill.

Later I had the excitement and challenge of working for two American companies and visited Philadelphia and Chicago. I also took my wife to New York for Christmas shopping and a chance to compare the performance of Chicago on Broadway with its West End version.

But this time my meeting with America was different. Not the hustle and bustle of New York or the urgent pace of business meetings, but an encounter with a peaceful and easy way of life in Safety Harbor, comparing vividly with suburban life at home, which is becoming increasingly rushed and crowded. Here it seems there is time to talk, laugh and listen. In the hotel gym I was asked where I came from. "UK? Would that be the University of Kansas?" was the dry comment. Locker-room humor is the same wherever you go.

Animal life features highly in the pictures on my computer — the manatees swimming off the quay at Safety Harbor, the pelicans diving like Stuka dive bombers for their prey, and in the late evening the egrets and herons swooping low in line-ahead formation as they return for the night. Every morning the egrets would come to feed on the lawn outside our balcony, and at night we looked forward to the pair of killdeers (we call them ringed plovers at home) that came to look for grubs on the grass in the near darkness. And, of course, we had to take photos of the alligators at Myakka River State Park — 1,500 of them apparently, but how could anyone take a kayak out among that lot?

Eating was something extraordinary for us. Your meals are gargantuan, and we found ourselves walking home again and again with a box containing the rest of our meals. That's a habit we could usefully learn at home.

Many of us in our party noticed the contrast with the way seniors are accepted stateside — no suggestion of what we call ageism in Britain. You have a normal relationship with older people, who are treated with respect. "Hi, guys," it seems, is the mode of address for anyone, no matter how old or young, and we felt comfortable with that.

I was fascinated with the way traffic gives precedence to pedestrians and the way cyclists of all ages travel safely in Safety Harbor. But highway driving and overtaking on either lane obviously requires skill and supreme nerve.

One of the highlights of our three weeks was a trip from St. Petersburg on the jazz boat listening to the music of Dixieland Jazz Legends. A pity they don't do a CD; I could have played their music on my iPod back in the gym during my weekly workouts. But for Meg, the band played a special New York, New York. It's a piece that's played wherever we go.

Your presidential primaries were a constant backdrop to our television watching during our stay, principally Super Tuesday. But when I remarked on it to my American friends, they just said caustically, "Oh, that." They thought I meant Super Sunday and the Super Bowl — obviously much more interesting.

Most days we'd stroll Main Street in Safety Harbor, pausing to talk to our new neighbors and to pop into the chamber of commerce, where we always received a warm welcome. And when we walked into a wine shop, the proprietor noticed Meg's carrier bag, made of organic cotton. "Thank you," he said, gravely, "for doing your bit to save the planet." A long day's march from the image of a country that's supposed to be against working for the environment.

Easygoing and natural courtesy typifies the American approach to service — in the hotel, in restaurants and the shops we visited. And that was the keynote of our entry into America and our departure. We had been told that your customs and immigration service was tough, unrelenting, and that we'd wait hours at Tampa, with our cases being burst open. Not so. Everyone we met on entry, and exit, was helpful and determined to ease our passage. As one of the guys on duty said as he passed my grip through the system, "Tell your people we love them."

That's what the relationship between our two countries really means, and it's the message I'm passing on to friends at home. Meantime, we'll be following your news via the Internet and the St. Petersburg Times online.

Thanks, America — we'll be back.

Paul Baker lives in England. His e-mail address is [email protected]

Guest column: An English visitor says 'Good show, America' 04/02/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 7, 2008 3:00pm]
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